Interview: James Yorkston

This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Thursday August 2, 2012, under the heading THE CAT IN THE HAT.

There’s a lovely line in James Yorkston’s Woozy with Cider, a lucid 2006 post-party psalm.

“The world is not exactly going to be leaping out of its bed to make me rich,” lulls the East Neuk raconteur, over a down-time disco beat. These modest, existential words are typical of our self-proclaimed purveyor of “slow songs for a select audience”, but the music is significant too. It is a warm electro hymn from a man who has long been pegged as a folk bard, despite his muse being equally (if not more) indebted to krautrock, Malagasy guitars and punk.

Yorkston’s new album, I Was a Cat From a Book, is his fifth solo outing for Domino Records, home to Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and enduring Fife ally King Creosote. It is ten years since he released his Domino debut, the recently re-issued Moving Up Country, and longer since he found nascent champions in John Peel, Bert Jansch and John Martyn, but the new record resonates with the Yorkston traits that struck a chord back then, and have done ever since, from his enthralling, wandering songs to the recurring cat motifs.

But this album also turns over new ground. For starters, he’s supplanted his regular house-band, The Athletes (for “various unsavoury reasons”) with a jazz trio. “Making this record has been a completely different process for me,” says Yorkston over peppermint tea in a Cellardyke harbour pub. “I was keen to break out a bit – I wanted to make a live-sounding album. I love percussion, but I love it if it’s buried, and delicate, and driving, and interesting. If it’s just meat and two veg drums, I cannot stand it. That’s why we got the jazz band in. The jazz band,” he chuckles.

The striking, intuitive troupe in question comprises Lamb’s Jon Thorne on double bass, and the Cinematic Orchestra’s Luke Flowers and John Ellis on percussion and piano respectively, while exquisite string arrangements come courtesy of violin diviners Geese. “Emma [Smith, of Geese] has played with me since 2006, and I’ve kind of been leaning on her a bit more as a musical accomplice recently,” says Yorkston. There are also gorgeous vocal cameos from Kathryn Williams and Sparrow and the Workshop’s Jill O’Sullivan.

A version of O’Sullivan’s and Yorkston’s balmy duet, Just as Scared, debuted on last year’s excellent Fruit Tree Foundation compilation, which also featured Karine Polwart, Emma Pollock and Alasdair Roberts, plus members of The Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit. Did Yorkston always plan to revisit Just as Scared on the new record? “My dad always said he liked that song so I thought, ‘Well, why not put it on?’ It’s nice and poppy. And it’s a bit lighter than some of the other songs on the album,” he laughs quietly. “There’s no harm in having a little bit of light.”

This is the part that is hard to write. Yorkston’s new album, though frequently beautiful, and often uplifting, is shot through with darkness. The Fire and the Flames in particular is devastating, and no parent should ever have to sing lines like, “All I want is for you to be well, my love” or, “The look in your eyes that says, ‘why do you let them hurt me so?’” let alone discuss them in a pop interview. Suffice to say, at time of our speaking, things are looking brighter for Yorkston’s young daughter, who has been seriously ill for the past two years.

Along with a sense of heartbreak, and relief, there is also anger on the album – and catharsis – but it was ever thus. Yorkston has long made incendiary songs along with those he calls the quiet ones, to the extent that you might be tempted to align his (admittedly largely acoustic) music with punk. Is that a reasonable charge?

“It sounds ridiculous saying it, because sonically it doesn’t sound punk-rock, but it was definitely always an influence,” he nods. “Bands like Dead Kennedys, that first Dag Nasty album, I absolutely loved all that. But it was more about the attitude.”

Yorkston’s ardour for sub-cultural pop is rooted in a musical youth shared with his childhood best friend, the BBC presenter Vic Galloway. They grew up together in the Fife village of Kingsbarns, and performed in 1990s combos Miraclehead and Huckleberry. “Vic and I wrote our first song when we were about six,” he says. “It was called Baa Baa Baa.” He croons said farmyard ode into the tape recorder. “We wrote that on a one-stringed guitar and a banjo.” It sounds like a proto-Fence masterwork. “Yeah, we were laying down the boundaries for that,” he laughs.

Later, the comrades would turn to punk. “The first band I ever saw was The Damned, on [1985’s] Grimly Fiendish tour. Vic’s mum drove us through to Edinburgh for it. The ethos I took from punk was that whole, ‘Do your own thing, follow your own will’, and I still consider that part of my music. I’m doing what I want.”

Yorkston’s long-term affiliation with King Creosote’s Fence Collective underscores his DIY credo (Fence have released some of his recordings, and Yorkston performs as The Three Craws in cahoots with KC and The Pictish Trail), and there is something of the punk aesthetic in his take on traditional folk songs too – most notably his carnal 2008 account of Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight’s glorious Midnight Feast, which re-casts it as a lusty (or lustier) shanty, all ravenous cravings, moonlit climaxes, and wanton kosmische swells. “Yeah, sometimes when I’m playing with the band it can break into a krautrock thing,” he says.

Although he’s now based back in Fife, Yorkston spent 17 years in Edinburgh, and credits the city’s music library with his love for folk singer Anne Briggs and krautrock alchemists Can. “There was also this Madagascan guitar player called D’Gary,” he adds. “It was actually my brother who got out D’Gary out of the record library, but he wrote his name down wrong. We thought he was called M’Gary for years.”

Yorkston is an intricate, fierce acoustic guitarist – did he learn to play by imitating D’Gary? “Yeah, absolutely, I tried to replicate him, I tried to copy him, and I couldn’t because he’s absolutely extraordinary. Him and Mississippi John Hurt, they were the ones.”

Last year, Yorkston published a terrific memoir, It’s Lovely to Be Here: The Touring Diaries of a Scottish Gent. At the time, we discussed how writing a book had impacted on his song-writing, if at all, and he said he was trying to write simpler songs. How did that pan out across the new album? “I was thinking about this yesterday actually,” he offers. “The thing is, I tend to write more complicated songs like [the new album’s] Catch, or Border Song, or Shipwreckers [from 2004’s Just Beyond TheRiver], where you really just fill them full of lyrics, and I love that.

“So if I’m writing other things I really have to pull myself back,” he continues. “On the new album there’s Kath with Rhodes, [the stunning] A Short Blues and Two – they’ve got a lot less lyrics, but they’re not naturally where I’m going. I’m happy that they’re there, they’re poppy, and they’re easy to understand, but as a general rule I tend to prefer the ebb and flow of the more lyrical pieces.”

Ever the salesman, Yorkston hails his new album as, “not an embarrassing duffer.” And there are caveats. “There’s one word on it I’m not so happy with. Actually, there’s a guitar part that’s slightly too loud as well.” He laughs quietly. “I don’t take myself too seriously, but I do take my music seriously, and I put a lot of effort into it. There is humour in there, but they’re not jokey songs.”

Yorkston’s lyrical humour is a lot like he is: gentle and droll. You can hear it in wistful lines like, “I miss your short-skirted dignity,” from 2008’s chamber-ballad Summer’s Not The Same Without You or, “Finally my Catholic brain kicked in,” on I Was a Cat’s motorik-folk aria, Spanish Ants. You can hear it in Woozy with Cider’s warm humility: “It’ll be interesting to see if anyone ever bought those songs of mine; if anyone heard those words that I never got quite right,” he sings.

Some of us have frequently leapt out of bed, and country miles, for Yorkston’s non-duffers; to buy those songs; to hear those words. We always will.

I Was a Cat From a Book is out now via Domino. James Yorkston plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on Friday 21 Sep then tours.

Related articles:
I Was A Cat From A Book – Sunday Herald album review (12.08.12)
Moving Up Country 10 year Anniversary tour – The Herald live review  (05.06.12)
It’s Lovely To Be Here: The Touring Diaries of a Scottish Gent – The List interview (14.01.11)
It’s Lovely To Be Here: Celtic Connections – The Herald live review – actually, I can’t find an online link to this, so here it is…

This review was originally published in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Jan 30 2011.

James Yorkston, Recital Room, City Halls, Glasgow

James Yorkston is a man of many charms. He is a singer-songwriter, a warm raconteur, a mainstay in Fife’s Fence Collective. And now he’s the author of a comical and beautifully-observed rock memoir, entitled It’s Lovely To Be Here: The Touring Diaries of a Scottish Gent.

He revealed an additional knack for transforming a room at Celtic Connections, as he turned the fairly austere surrounds of the City Halls Recital Room – grey stage, white walls, stark lighting – into a fireside, coastal retreat. His intimate book readings pulled us in close and his songs evoked the crackle of peat; the flicker of flames; the bluster of wind and tide.

Yorkston is a disarming performer. He is mild-mannered, kind and quietly spoken – yet he’s engaging, compelling, and very funny. His unlikely tale of impersonating “a hard man” in Canada was self-effacing and hilarious, as were his reflections on overnight train staff, peeping toms and motel décor.

He is also helplessly off-the-cuff. He frequently interrupted his own readings to veer off on deadpan anecdotal tangents, like the one about meeting Dick Francis, or the time he wrote to Radio 4 because Lenny Henry was on too often.

This improvisational spirit infused Yorkston’s songs too – hair-raising acoustic favourites like Shipwreckers and Tortoise Regrets Hare were interwoven with ad-hoc compositions. Queen of Spain became Queen of Spin (in tribute to a misheard BBC radio interview earlier that day), but the highlight was an on-the-spot protest song, in which he riled against the dearth of morning rolls in his local shop.

“I think I’m getting angrier as I approach my fortieth birthday,” Yorkston reflected. Long may he express his fury in such lovely, humdrum ways.

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